How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The fight to honor an immigrant Marine

A post last year told the story of Marine Corps Sgt. Rafael Peralta, a green card holder turned Marine who was killed in action in Iraq in November 2004.

Peralta, who was born in Mexico, died during a house-to-house sweep in the city of Falluja. But his story didn't end there. Since not long after he died, there has been a back-and-forth between his fellow Marines and the Department of Defense over what witnesses described as extraordinary act of heroism: According to witnesses, a critically wounded Peralta reached out and grabbed a grenade that landed near his body, pulling it underneath him and smothering it. He's credited with saving the lives of the Marines near him.

The dispute arose after Peralta was nominated for a Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest distinction for military service. After a pathologist's investigation, Department of Defense officials questioned whether such an act would have been possible given the wounds Peralta sustained. In the end he was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross, still a high honor, but a lesser one. The decision outraged his family and fellow Marines, especially those with him when he died.

Now, a delegation of lawmakers from California is asking military leaders to reconsider the Medal of Honor nomination, citing video recently released by The History Channel, which in 2007 aired a documentary (clip above) about Peralta titled "Act of Honor." From the Los Angeles Times:

 The video, taken by a filmmaker who was following Marines during the battle, does not show the kind of leg wounds that would likely be present if the grenade, as the pathologist concluded, had exploded near Peralta's leg instead of underneath his body as the Marines insisted.

KPBS's Home Post blog published part of a letter dated Feb. 29 that was sent to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, signed by a bipartisan group of legislators from California and insisting that Peralta was fully capable of smothering the grenade as witnesses said they saw him do.

Like those of other immigrant military members sometimes referred to as green card soldiers, Peralta's story began with the brightest of ambitions. He was born into a family that moved from Mexico City to Tijuana seeking better opportunities, then eventually to San Diego, where he attended high school. According to family, he'd hoped to become an attorney, and joining the military was to be one step on that path. Upon receiving his green card, he joined the Marines.

From a story about Peralta on Military.com:

Young Rafael Peralta, or “Rafa,” thought carefully about his future as he grew up in Tijuana and San Diego in the 1980s and ’90s. He earned excellent grades and thought he might become a lawyer. While in high school, he decided to join the Marine Corps and postpone college until after his service. He was ecstatic on the day in the late ’90s when he got a green card, not only because it granted him legal U.S. residency, but because he could now sign up with the Marines.

Here's what one of Peralta's comrades told told USA Today in 2008:
“I know for a fact that I would have been killed … and that my daughter, Sophia, our new baby, Sienna, would not be here or coming into the world. And that my son, Noah, would have grown up without knowing his dad,” said Robert Reynolds, 31, a corrections officer and former Marine who was with Peralta that day.

The History Channel's documentary aired before the Department of Defense decided against a Medal of Honor for Peralta. It's worth scrolling past the intro in part one, above, which features some moving interviews with family members and footage from Peralta's burial in San Diego. A comrade says: "Every day that I wake up and I see my wife and my family, I owe it all to him."
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